Doctors are often able to make an accurate diagnosis based on your symptoms, but they can draw on other tools when they are uncertain. For example, they may order laboratory tests on your blood or cell tissues to check for specific problems. Labs employ a number of technical professionals with varying levels of skill and education. Entry-level positions are held by laboratory assistants.
Whether it's a standalone laboratory serving multiple facilities or the in-house lab at a hospital or clinic, your local laboratory is designed to make cost-effective use of its staff. The pathologists who oversee the lab's operation are its most valuable asset, and their time is jealously guarded. Pathologists perform the most challenging tests and diagnoses, and oversee the work of other staff. Highly trained technologists perform many test procedures and prescreen the results for the pathologists' review. Laboratory technicians attend to routine tests and screening under the technologists' supervision, while laboratory assistants take care of routine chores that don't require a technician's expertise.
Collection and Receiving
Laboratory assistants' duties often overlap with those of laboratory technicians. As a rule, assistants are employed when there are more valuable uses for the technicians' time. For example, in some workplaces, laboratory assistants might be responsible for collecting blood, stool, urine or other samples directly from patients, or indirectly from staff in other departments. In settings where samples are delivered to the laboratory, assistants are often responsible for receiving and recording the samples, then storing them according to the laboratory's guidelines.
Basic Preparation and Testing
Many samples require a degree of preparation before tests can be run. For example, a drop of blood or thin layer from a stool sample might be prepared as a slide, for viewing under a microscope. Other substances might need to be dissolved, frozen, sliced, dried, stained, immobilized in a gel, cultured in a sterile medium, treated with a solvent or reagent, or stained to improve visibility under the microscope. Laboratory assistants might perform any of these tasks in a given workplace, using protective equipment when necessary and observing appropriate procedures to prevent contamination of the samples. In some cases, assistants will perform basic tests, such as blood typing, when technicians are busy.
When they're available, laboratory assistants are often utilized to handle administrative and non-clinical tasks. This frees up technicians and other staff for higher-value activities. Laboratory assistants might use a computer or paper-based forms to keep records of samples coming into the lab and test results going out. They also verify that the data is associated with the correct patient file. Assistants share the responsibility for cleaning and maintaining the lab and its equipment to appropriate standards, and maintaining appropriate levels of inventory. In some cases, assistants might be responsible for ordering consumables from the facility's central stores or from outside suppliers.
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.